Critical Gerontology

views updated


Generally speaking, the term "critical gerontology" can be used to describe a rather broad spectrum of theoretical interests, ranging from constructions and deconstructions of aging (Gubrium, 1986; Hazan; Katz) to the issue of power and control in contemporary society (Estes; Moody, 1988, 1993; Phillipson and Walker). What ties these different perspectives together is that all of them, in one form or another, have been critical of "a theoretical self-understanding of gerontology, which is dominated by an idealized concept of natural science as the representative of 'objective' knowledge" (Baars, p. 220). In contrast, critical gerontologists argue that the nature of scientific data cannot be separated from the approach, interest, orientation, and other subjective aspects of the researcher. The issues raised have focused primarily on the ideological and socially constructive features of age conceptualizations. Three theories in particularcritical theory, political economy, and social phenomenologyare exemplary in this regard. We discuss each in turn.

Critical theory

Drawing on the tradition of the Frankfurt school of thought (see Held), Harry Moody (1988) has attempted to apply critical theory to the study of aging. He relies, in particular, on the work of Jürgen Habermas, especially his book Knowledge and Human Interests (1971). In it, Habermas distinguishes three kinds of cognitive interest toward any world of concern. Cognitive interests are the general intellectual task orientations taken in describing a world of objects. Asking, in effect, "For what purpose is this knowledge?" Habermas specifies three answers: cognitive interests in control, understanding (verstehen ), and emancipation. Our discussion will focus on the interests in control and emancipation. (For a description of all three interests as they relate to aging, see Lynott and Lynott.)

Consider first a cognitive interest in control, which underlies conventional theories of aging. From this point of view (with this tacit interest), social objects and events are believed to be things in their own right, separate from those who experience them. This understanding makes it reasonable to raise questions about the relationship between individuals, on the one hand, and a real, objective world that they encounter, on the other. For example, if one feature of an individual's world is that it is organized around a life span or a life course with distinct stages, cohorts, or points of transition, then one might reasonably ask what sort of impact these "things" have on the characteristics of the individuals who are located within, or proceeding through, them, and how this affects adjustment in old age. The knowledge obtained by empirically testing various hypotheses in this regard would then allow one to effectively intervene in human affairs, or at least to suggest alterations, in order to bring about desirable changes (control) of some sort, as a consequence of policymaking.

In contrast, a cognitive interest in emancipation does not take for granted the separate and objective existence of objectsseparate, that is, from those for whom they are objects. Thus, for example, the life course, as a thing, is not treated as an entity that is ontologically distinct from those who experience it. It would make no sense, with this interest, to ask how persons proceed through the life course, since the procedure itself, in some critical sense, produces the life course. (Murphy and Longino, [p. 147] have pointed out in this regard that the term "life course" itself conjures up an image of a person's life as having "a natural or evolutionary course," which glosses over the "pervasiveness of interpretation" in everyday life.) The emancipation of concern to critical theorists is to reveal to the subject that the objects of his or her experiences (things like stages, cohorts, and transitions in later life) are products of his or her labor.

An interest in emancipation arises out of the understanding that, on the one hand, the objects of the world get produced by meaningful action, and yet, on the other hand, in the course of human affairs the source of the objects gets lost. The research task for this cognitive interest is critique, and thus theory becomes critical. What is critiqued by critical theorists is not the objective state of objects per se; what is critiqued are transformations of the relationship between subjects and objects from being genuine to being alienated (ideologically distorted). Thus, a major concern for critical theorists, with respect to age conceptualizations and theories of aging in general, would be how they represent a language serving to reify experience as something separate from those doing the experiencing. In the final analysis, critical theorists would argue that treating age-related concepts as depicting things separate from their human origins allows for their use as a means of social control. In other words, ignoring the possibility that objects are objectsfor-someone, thereby being in someone's interest, can lead "not to freedom. . .[for elderly persons]. . .but to new domination, perhaps a domination exercised ever more skillfully by professionals, bureaucrats, or policymakers" (Moody, 1988, p. 26).

Following this line of reasoning, Moody (1993, p. xvi) states that a cognitive interest in control "can never provide a rational foundation for purpose, value, or meaning in [late] life." It can only serve "to reify the status quo and provide new tools to predict and control human behavior" (Moody, 1988, p. 33). What is missing in theories of aging, for Moody, is a form of "emancipatory knowledge" that offers "a positive vision of how things might be different or what a rationally defensible vision of a 'good old age' might be" (Moody, 1993, p. xvii). To achieve this, he argues, gerontologists must move beyond their attempts to study aging based upon the natural-science model, and explore contributions toward theory development from a more reflective mode of thought derived from disciplines within the humanities, such as history, literature, and philosophy (see, e.g., Cole et al.).

However, it is unclear how Moody's vision of emancipation can be realized, given that, as Michel Foucault's work (1980) has demonstrated, knowledge and power are always inextricably intertwined. Foucault's sober message cuts short attempts to provide new, more truthful discourses. Moody (1988, p. 27) himself has acknowledged that "we still have no clear account of where that emancipatory ideal is to be found." Nonetheless, the incorporation of critical theory into gerontological thinking has expanded critical awareness in the field, adding to the ideological and epistemological concerns raised earlier by political economists and social phenomenologists (see Lynott and Lynott; Passuth and Bengtson). We discuss each of these perspectives in turn.

Political economy

The political economists (Estes; Estes et al.; Guillemard; Minkler and Estes, 1991, 1999; Myles; Olson; Walker) argue that to understand the problems of elderly people, one should attend to the political and economic conditions surrounding them. This turns attention away from the problems of elders as largely lying, according to gerontological theorists, in "their private troubles" and toward the political economy of growing older. To apply C. Wright Mills's (1959) language further, attention is centered on (1) the public issue of age and (2) the relationship between public issues and private troubles.

For political economists, the sources of private troubles, such as social isolation and role loss in old age, are found in the relations between the state and a capitalist economy. (Marxists [e.g., Olson] give signal governance to the economy; Weberians [e.g., Myles] provide for relatively independent state influence in social relations.) This view stands in stark contrast to the notion that older people have problems for which they are virtually blamedblaming the victim. The solution, for the latter, is for elderly persons to "do something about it" or, as actually happened, for an army of experts to help them with the task. However, the political economists maintain that "Older persons individually are powerless to alter their social status and condition" (Estes, p. 15), positing that the structure of society itself has created the problem of old age.

Consider, for example, the Older Americans Act of 1965 (OAA) as a state-supported means of perpetuating the private troubles of elderly persons (Estes; Estes et al.; Olson). While OAA had the ideal of establishing the independence and well-being of older people, its welfare-oriented articulation further transformed them into a state-dependent class, a welfare class. The program saw the solution to the problems of aging, in application, largely in local planning for the coordination of fragmented, recreation-like programs. For example, rather than make elderly persons economically solvent, the strategy was to keep them happy in the confines of places like senior centers. Rather than make them independent, individual managers of their affairs, their very sustenance became bound to a system of dependence, perhaps best symbolized by nutrition programs (hot meals and Meals on Wheels).

Such programs, Carroll Estes (p. 22) argues, "ignore the widespread poverty of the aged and provide no direct economic relief. Instead the aged become consumers of services that simply feed the expanding service economy." The army of experts, professionals, and service providers that has arisen to dole out benefits of various kinds to the elder population has expanded the service sector of the American economy. A tremendously complex welfare bureaucracy that both controls and presumably benefits elders also provides an ever-expanding job market for the young. The process results in a large discrepancy, on income grounds alone, when comparing the income of bureaucrats servicing the elders with the income of the elders they service. In effect, the political economy of aging serves those who serve the state more than it serves those who are troubled by its conditions.

The political economists shift the focus of attention from attempting to explain the existing conditions of old age in terms of individual adjustment to a class explanation for the helplessness of the position of older people (Olson). While the argument presented raises important questions concerning "individualistic" thinking in gerontological theoryasking, in effect, "Whose interests are served by thinking of age in particular ways?"at the same time, it tends to overstate the extent to which elderly persons, as a whole, are impoverished and disenfranchised (see Harris and Associates). Indeed, some researchers have suggested that the majority of elderly people in American society constitute a "new old" who are healthier and live in relative economic well-being (Cain; Neugarten). Political economists, however, increasingly have attempted to include issues of gender, race, and ethnicity as part of their class analysis (Minkler and Estes, 1991, 1999). Another problem with the political economy perspective is that it is overly deterministic. Political economists tend to treat private troubles as direct distillations of public issues, as if individuals automatically realize in their personal experiences what is defined at large. This ignores problems of meaning and interpretation in the everyday lives of elderly people, something that is of primary concern for the social phenomenologists, to whom we now turn.

Social phenomenology

The social phenomenologists (Gubrium, 1986, 1993; Gubrium and Buckholdt; Gubrium and Lynott, 1983, 1985; Lynott; Starr) turn their attention from causal explanations of human behavior to a concern for the reality-defining labor of practitioners of everyday life. Drawing primarily from the works of Alfred Schutz (1970) and Harold Garfinkel (1967), they "bracket," or set aside, one's taken-for-granted belief in the reality of age and age-related concepts in order to examine the process by which they are socially constructed. The analysis focuses on membership in various communities of discourse (professional and lay alike), showing how members collectively negotiate a sense of age and aging through talk and interaction.

Social phenomenologists have criticized theories of aging for taking the existential status of age for granted. While the theories look at variations in the meaning of age and aging behavior along, for example, historical, cohort, and exchange lines, the variations are accepted as background factors or outside forces operating upon older people. Thus, the interpretation of the so-called forces and their subsequent reinterpretation, in the ongoing practice of everyday life, is ignored. (This criticism also applies to the concept of social class, as was noted above.) The social phenomenologists, on the other hand, focus attention on the process by which age, agedness, and age-related "facts" are produced and reproduced in the first place. Their concern lies with the issue of how the objects of and ideas about aging are understood by people who experience them, and how these experiences serve to produce and reproduce themselves along certain lines.

The social construction of fact has been concretely demonstrated in an analysis of the Alzheimer's disease experience (Gubrium, 1986; Gubrium and Lynott, 1985; Lynott). The study examined the social organization of two types of discourseaging and diseaseby which to reference, describe, and explain the "symptoms" of aging. It was clear that those affected by the variety of conditions experienced considerable suffering. The existence of the objects of turmoil neurofibrillary tangles and senile plaques in the brain and their erratic behavioral correlates, including memory loss and confusionwere equally empirically validated, as was the alarm they generated. Their meaning, however, was problematic, with all the existing evidence, from neuropathological to psychological, being garnered on behalf of both a disease entity and the aging process itself.

Yet, in the final analysis, it was not the "facts" per se that secured the disease distinction, but the practical usages they served. In this regard, the desire to ameliorate the conditions observed were part and parcel of Alzheimer's assigned factual status, for the disease interpretation allowed medical researchers to search for treatments and possible cures that aging itself did not. Likewise, the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Association's instrumental efforts in spreading the word about what was increasingly presented as the devastating effects of a disease served to transform the meaning of the conditions dealt with. The result was that "Alzheimer's disease [was] not normal aging." The telltale signs of aging became a disease, the "disease of the century." By implication, a reality meaningfully came to possess its own concrete facts.

The transformation, however, was not a linear and progressive process of redefinition from old age to disease. It was clear that the ongoing assignment and descriptive practices of those concerned were continually producing what the sense of this thingaging/diseasewas to be for the practical purposes at hand. For example, in the support groups for caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, the condition of a patient could be interpreted as a sign of a given stage of the disease against a background of certain comparisons with others. That "same" condition could shift, with a change in framework, to an interpretation of old age when lamenting the lack of any "rhyme or reason" to the course of illness. In this respect, there were no straightforward facts concerning any aspect of the disease experience; rather, the facts entered into ongoing practical experiences as more or less useful ways to understand the condition and related experiences under consideration.

The social phenomenological analysis reveals that the potential realities assigned to the aging experience are the products of an ongoing process of social construction, descriptively organized by prevailing stocks of knowledge (Schutz). Even so, the issue of power is never fully addressed by this perspective. The reason is that while the approach generates important data about the process of social production, at the same time it tends to ignore its structure. That is, it tends to conclude its analysis when the human products of the process have been produced, considering the product not as a configuration of social conditions independent of and perhaps confronting members, but rather in terms of its interpretive resources and production and reproductiona concern for structuration rather than structure as such (Giddens).


While the theories discussed (critical theory, political economy, and social phenomenology) have very different orientations to the study of aging, the analytic challenges they pose represent something newnew modes of self-consciousnessin terms of the nature and practice of gerontological inquiry (Lynott and Lynott). This does not mean to suggest, however, that a paradigm shift in definitions of and thoughts about age and aging is developing (Kuhn). On the contrary, as Jan Baars (p. 220) has pointed out, the theories, in large part, "have been excluded by the established 'mainstream."' Each of these approaches, in its own fashion, takes issue with conventional theorizing in the field, providing new insights into, and critical self-reflection on, the continuing effort to understand the aging experience.

Robert J. Lynott Patricia Passath Lynott

See also Life Course; Theories, Social.


Baars, J. "The Challenge of Critical Gerontology: The Problem of Social Constitution." Journal of Aging Studies 5, no. 3 (1991): 219243.

Cain, L. D. Jr. "Age, Status, and Generational Phenomena: The New Old People in Contemporary America." The Gerontologist 7 (1967): 8392.

Cole, T. R.; Achenbaum, W. A.; Jakobi, P. L.; and Kastenbaum, R., eds. Voices and Visions of Aging: Toward a Critical Gerontology. New York: Springer, 1993.

Estes, C. L. The Aging Enterprise: A Critical Examination of Social Policies and Services for the Aged. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979.

Estes, C. L.; Linkins, K. W.; and Binney, E. A. "The Political Economy of Aging." In Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, 4th ed. Edited by R. H. Binstock and L. K. George, San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1996. Pages 346361.

Foucault, M. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 19721977. Translated by C. Gordan, L. Marshall, J. Mepham, and K. Soper. Edited by C. Gordan. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Garfinkel, H. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Giddens, A. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Gubrium, J. F. Oldtimers and Alzheimer's: The Descriptive Organization of Senility. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1986.

Gubrium, J. F. Speaking of Life: Horizons of Meaning for Nursing Home Residents. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993.

Gubrium, J. F., and LYNOTT, R. J. "Alzheimer's Disease as Biographical Work." In Social Bonds in Later Life: Aging and Interdependence. Edited by W. A. Peterson and J. Quadagno, Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1985. Pages 349367.

Gubrium, J. F., and Lynott, R. J. "Rethinking Life Satisfaction." Human Organization 42, no. 1 (1983): 3038.

Gubrium, J. F., and Buckholdt, D. R. Toward Maturity: The Social Processing of Human Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1977.

Guillemard, A.-M., ed. Old Age and the Welfare State. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1983.

Habermas, J. Knowledge and Human Interests. Translated by J. J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Harris, L., and Associates, Inc. The Myth and Reality of Aging in America. Washington, D.C.: National Council on the Aging, 1975.

Hazan, H. Old Age: Constructions and Deconstructions. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Held, D. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

KATZ, S. Disciplining Old Age: The Formation of Gerontological Knowledge. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.

Kuhn, T. S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Lynott, R. J. "Alzheimer's Disease and Institutionalization: The Ongoing Construction of a Decision." Journal of Family Issues 4, no. 4 (1983): 559574.

Lynott, R. J., and Lynott, P. P. "Tracing the Course of Theoretical Development in the Sociology of Aging." The Gerontologist 36, no. 6 (1996): 749760.

Mills, C. W. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Minkler, M., and Estes, C. L., eds. Critical Gerontology: Perspectives from Political and Moral Economy. Amityville, N.Y.: Baywood, 1999.

Minkler, M., and Estes, C. L., eds. Critical Perspectives on Aging: The Political and Moral Economy of Growing Old. Amityville, N.Y.: Baywood, 1991.

Moody, H. R. "Overview: What is Critical Gerontology and Why is it Important?" In Voices and Visions of Aging: Toward a Critical Gerontology. Edited by T. R. Cole, W. A. Achenbaum, P. L. Jakobi, and R. Kastenbaum, New York: Springer, 1993. Pages xvxli.

Moody, H. R. "Toward a Critical Gerontology: The Contribution of the Humanities to Theories of Aging." In Emergent Theories of Aging. Edited by J. E. Birren and V. L. Bengtson, New York: Springer, 1988. Pages 1940.

Murphy, J. W., and Longino, C. F., Jr. "What is the Justification for a Qualitative Approach to Ageing Studies?" Ageing and Society 12, no. 2 (1992): 143156.

Myles, J. Old Age in the Welfare State: The Political Economy of Public Pensions, Rev. ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.

Neugarten, B. L. "Age Groups in American Society and the Rise of the Young Old." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 415 (1974): 187198.

Olson, L. K. The Political Economy of Aging: The State, Private Power, and Social Welfare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Passuth, P. M., and Bengtson, Vernl. "Sociological Theories of Aging: Current Perspectives and Future Directions." In Emergent Theories of Aging. Edited by J. E. Birren and V. L. Bengtson, New York: Springer, 1988. Pages 333355.

Phillipson, C., and Walker, A. "The Case for a Critical Gerontology." In Social Gerontology: New Directions. Edited by S. Di Gregorio. London: Croom Helm, 1987. Pages 115.

Schutz, A. On Phenomenology and Social Relations: Selected Writings. With an introduction by H. R. Wagner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Starr, J. M. "Toward a Social Phenomenology of Aging: Studying the Self Process in Biographical Work." International Journal of Aging and Human Development 16, no. 4 (19821983): 255270.

Walker, A. "Towards a Political Economy of Old Age." Ageing and Society 1, no. 1 (1981): 7394.

About this article

Critical Gerontology

Updated About content Print Article